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1 June 1778: Families from Malaga embark on a journey to colonise Louisiana

A group of students from New Iberia visited Alhaurín de la Torre town hall in March this year.
A group of students from New Iberia visited Alhaurín de la Torre town hall in March this year. / SUR
  • A group of 16 Spanish families set sail to America aboard the ship San José and settled in Nueva Iberia

The roots of New Iberia, the American town twinned with Alhaurín de la Torre and Fuengirola, lie in Malaga. In 1762, the Treaty of Fontainebleau transferred the rule of the North American state of Louisiana to the Spanish Empire. This was kept secret, however, during the negotiations for the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which awarded a lot of North American land to Great Britain.

At that time, the state was populated by mostly French, British and Native American people. In an effort to assert its dominance over the vast land, the Spanish Empire planned to colonise Louisiana with its own people. It sought volunteers from the province of Malaga, promising poor families their own plots of land, farm tools and money for growing crops.

On 1 June 1778 a group of 16 Spanish families set sail to America aboard the ship San José, led by governor Bernardo de Gálvez from Macharaviaya. The majority of the colonists were from Malaga, with many hailing from the Axarquía and Alhaurín de la Torre. At this time, New Orleans (not Baton Rouge) was the state capital and their desired destination.

After a gruelling four months at sea, stops in Puerto Rico and Cuba and the deaths of many of the travellers, the colonists eventually arrived at the port of New Orleans on 11 November.

The Spanish acquired 70 slaves and traversed the Bayou Treche river. Bernardo de Gálvez and his second in command Francisco Bouligny were in constant conflict about settlement areas and the poor living conditions of their fellow Spaniards, especially upon finding that many areas along the river had already been granted to others.

The group finally began construction and farming at a site along the banks of the river, which they named Nueva Iberia. However, in April 1779, they were flooded out and forced to move to higher ground. Here, there was discord between the Spaniards and the French-descended Acadians who resided at the new site. More 'Malagueños' arrived from New Orleans, though many were in a state of poor health. Evidence suggests the town lacked a doctor.

In August 1779, Spain became involved in the US War of Independence and Nueva Iberia's military men left the town to fight, led by Bouligny, who by then had been appointed leader of colonisation.

Bouligny was replaced and, under a new intendant, those left behind through the winter suffered meagre harvests and hostile conditions. The population of Spaniards began to wane and it is thought that by 1793 only six of the original families remained.

In 1800, Napoleon regained the land for France. Soon after, in 1803, the state was sold to the USA in a transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase. Nueva Iberia became New Iberia.

Though the colonisation of Louisiana was by no means benign, today the town acknowledges its past with an annual Spanish-themed festival where residents enjoy flamenco, tapas and paella.